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Facilitating Group Learning (review)

Jonathan Betz-Zall
On Teachers (September 2020)
Facilitating Group Learning
by George Lakey
reviewed by Jonathan Betz-Zall

Adults learn best through well-managed conflict, especially in multicultural groups, says George Lakey, one of the most prominent practitioners of satyagraha – the force of truth as the universe arcs toward justice. Originally published in 2010, this second edition of Lakey’s pathbreaking book appears to be aimed at college and university instructors, but it brims with insights for educators of adults in many other settings: training for social justice and social service work, professional and technical training, and even religious education that values experience as well as book learning. Our best efforts as Friends take the form of leading each other toward truthful insights through respectful, cooperative arguments over ideas. George Lakey shows us how to follow this leading.

Through many years of training practitioners of nonviolent direct action, Lakey developed a practice he calls “Direct Education,” which “supports the emergence of conflict, then assists the group to expand to a new level of performance and eagerness to learn.”

“In Direct Education, teachers are proactive” – they carefully set-up learning exercises and organize small support groups. They reinforce positive behaviors and generally work to create a pro-learning social order, or “container”. The teacher coaches learners to leave their comfort zones behind and to courageously enter the “learning zone.” A strong container allows teachers to manage positive relationships between “mainstream” and “margin” subgroups within the class. For example, “This generalization may fit many of you, but I imagine some of you have a different experience.” Developing and maintaining this container from the very beginning is key to influencing and benefitting from the “secret life” of the group, which can harmonize a multiplicity of individual learning goals.

Once a strong container is built, teachers can go on to effectively address differences by acknowledging, supporting, and confronting them. Lakey advises a process here of “showing rather than telling.” “Confronting [oppressive attitudes in] participants from the place of facilitator or teacher takes unfair advantage; it loads the dice because of people’s learned attitudes toward authority. Participants who habitually deferred to authority would simply defer to me, no matter what actually moved within them. Who can call that a learning process?” Lakey offers several participatory learning activities that “show rather than tell,” including speak-outs and fishbowls.

Following his own advice, Lakey tells story after story in this book – about how he had to change his own mind in response to class situations and how the principles of Direct Education were formed and successfully applied. Even experienced teachers who have already tried some of these methods will learn from his examples and see the principles in action in unexpected places, like Friends meetings.

While he occasionally acknowledged Quaker support of his work, Lakey leaves it to Quaker readers to envision how his principles could work for us. Friends who worry about lack of ethnic diversity in our meetings could benefit from the chapter on “Authenticity, Emotion and Expression.” We could consider how to strengthen the container and the mini-containers in our groups, support projection of feelings onto objects, give permission to nonverbal expression [e.g. to yawn], draw a cognitive map to reassure those who need some theory, and watch and encourage the margins in the group. The increased level of authenticity would very likely draw people who would increase our meeting’s diversity – if we are willing to allow ourselves and our meetings to be transformed. Are we ready to enter a learning zone?  ~~~

Jonathan Betz-Zall is a member of University Friends Meeting in Seattle, WA (NPYM).

teaching methods Social activism

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